Sensation and Science – Gordon Clark / Cornelius Van Til Differences

Van Til and Bahnsen argue that sensation and science are valid means of obtaining truth, as long as they’re undergirded with Christian presuppositions.

Clark argues that sensation cannot produce knowledge, and science cannot produce truth. Clark has a more narrow definition of “truth.”

Bahnsen writes this:

“I do not conclude that science has no right to make truth claims.” (190)

“A “fact” simply states what is the case when the mentioned state of affairs actually obtains. Given this framework, why should science be deprived of giving us “facts”? (191)

“Instead of denying science any right to statements of “truth,” Clark should have suggested something to the effect that a true statement is one that does not mislead its hearer as to what is the case; in this way both theology and science would be concerned with “truth” and could work together.” (191-192)

In contrast, Clark writes this:

Concerning sensation:

“…thought and knowledge cannot be obtained from pure sensation; or, in other words, to preserve a connection between sense experience and rational knowledge, sensation must be understood as an incipient form of reason. The two types of mental action must somehow be united, and if empiricism in philosophy results in skepticism while in theology it removes revelation, the only possible expedient is to explain sensation in terms of thought rather than thought in terms of sensation.” (219)

And concerning science

“The scientist wants mathematical accuracy; and when he cannot discover it, he makes it. Since he chooses his law from among an infinite number of equally possible laws, the probability that he has chosen the “true” law is one over infinity, that is, zero; or, in plain English, the scientist has no chance of hitting upon the “real” laws of nature. No doubt that scientific laws are useful: By them the atomic bomb was invented. The point of all this argument is merely this: However useful scientific laws are, they cannot be true. Or, at the very least, the point of all this argument is that scientific laws are not discovered but are chosen.“ (A Christian View of Men and Things, 149)

The common argument against Clark’s position is that people need to use their senses to read and learn the Bible, so if sensation cannot produce knowledge, then Clark’s worldview can’t even begin.

Clark’s response to this criticism is twofold:

  1. First, he says that the criticism does not include a positive demonstration of how sensation can result in knowledge.

Clark writes:

“How can one prove the reliability of memory? Any test designed to show which memory is true and which is mistaken presupposes that a previous memory is true – and this is the point in question. In large measure the psychological force of my position derives from the impossibility of empiricism.

No one in the history of philosophy has made a more determined effort than Aristotle to build knowledge on sensation. Surely Locke is no better; and contemporary phenomenalism with its experience that is neither mental nor physical is as meaningless and unverifiable as Spinoza’s substance that is both. It was for this reason that the first Wheaton Lecture used Aristotle as the exponent of Empiricism. Therefore, until my destructive analysis of Aristotle (in “Secular Philosophy” and in Thales to Dewey) is overturned, an appeal to sensation is a petitio principii.”

Excerpt From: Gordon H. Clark. “Clark and His Critics.” Apple Books. 

” (Clark and His Critics, 645-646)

  1. Second, Clark’s answer is a kind of “occasionalism.” He writes:

“Malebranche’s explanation of this is a theory called Occasionalism. God is the sole and indefeasibly effective cause of everything throughout the universe. He speaks and it is done. God produces mental events and physical events immediately. That is to say, when one stick’s one finger with a pin and experiences a pain, it is not the pin that produced the pain. God did.” – The Biblical Doctrine of Man, p. 91

Elsewhere, he writes:

Even the Westminster Divines timidly agree, for after asserting that God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass, and that ‘no purpose of yours can be withheld from you’ (Job 42:2), they add, ‘Although…all things come to pass immutably and infallibly, yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes…’ What they called second causes, Malebranche had called occasions. But an occasion is neither a fiat lux nor a differential equation.” – Clark, Lord God of Truth, 27.

In other words, knowledge comes directly from God on the occasion of sensation, through the concept of “second causes,” which are not a fiat lux—that is, a new creation—or a mechanistic differential equation.

Another criticism against Clark’s position is that if sensation and science can’t result in truth, then there’s very little that we actually know. Calvin Beisner responds by saying this:

“What people object to when Clark insists that knowledge is limited to the propositions in Scripture and valid deductions from them is is a caricature: the notion that this means we’re left with nothing but nearly comprehensive skepticism and so we never believe anything and never act on our beliefs in anything other than the propositions of Scripture and valid deductions from them. Clark, however, simultaneously affirmed his epistemology and chose to eat the scrambled eggs on his plate rather than the plate. He was content with life in a world in which we act on many beliefs that are opinions, not knowledge, and there’s nothing wrong with doing that. Indeed, it is unavoidable, and often enough, it serves our ends tolerably, effectively.”

So, I’ve tried to present the position of both sides concerning sensation and science, criticism against Clark, and how Clark has responded, or might respond, to the criticisms. If you think I’ve missed anything, let me know your thoughts.

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